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A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency — Book Excerpt

Posted on July 2nd, 2010 in AK Book Excerpts

At long last, Jeff Conant’s  A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency is back from the printer. Actually, if you’ve been reading this blog recently, you’ll know that we had a carton of them express shipped to the US Social Forum, where people grabbed every last one!

I first contacted Jeff—jeez, it must have been about four years ago—after reading a great piece he had written for the now sadly defunct LiP Magazine. The article was called “Propagating Popular Resistance: The Poetics, Public Relations, and Fetish of Zapatismo,” an excitingly new approach to the Zapatista legacy that actually did something with it it beyond simply valorizing and heroicizing. Jeff certainly considers the Zapatistas to be heroes, but he’s also able to dissect their words and strategies, to turn them over in his hands and wonder how they work…and how they might work for others.

It turned out that Jeff had a languishing, book-length manuscript on the subject…which he thankfully agreed to return to. The results, I think, are marvelous. To quote the book’s back-cover copy:

“The first ‘postmodern revolution’ presented itself to the world through a complex web of propaganda in every available medium: the colorful communiqués of Subcomandante Marcos, the ski masks, uniforms, dolls, murals, songs, and weapons both symbolic and real. By proliferating a profound and resonant set of myths, symbols, and grand historical gestures calculated to reflect their ideologies, organizing methodologies, and cultural values, the Zapatistas helped set into motion a global uprising, and the awareness that behind this uprising is a renewed vision of history. Jeff Conant’s engaging and innovative examination of the Zapatistas’ communication strategies will be an important tool for movements everywhere engaged in creating a world where many worlds fit; in demolishing History in order to construct histories; and in unseating not only the powerful, but Power itself.”

As ever, it’s hard to choose an excerpt to share with you…the book covers so much ground, in so many registers. So, I’ve decided to go with one of my favorite moments, a section lifted from Chapter One. It may not be the most representative sample, but I think it captures Jeff’s ability to frame familiar themes in new ways, and thereby encourage us to develop new ways of thinking about them.

Oh, and if you’re in the Bay Area, Modern Times Bookstore and Laborfest a hosting a book launch for A Poetics of Resistance on Wednesday July 7th, at the bookstore (888 Valencia Street in San Francisco) at 7pm. For more info, go here.


Branding Popular Resistance

“No space has been left unbranded.”
—Naomi Klein

Digging into the poetics of Zapatismo, analyzing the communiqués for their symbolic and literary content, seems a valid and valuable exercise, but it begs a question: if a story is told in the jungle and no one is there to hear it, is it still a story?

Introducing Gloria Muñoz Ramirez’s book The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement, Subcomandante Marcos has written the story of the Zapatistas’ early days:  “According to our calendar, the history of the EZLN prior to the beginning of the war had seven stages.”21 Marcos goes on to tell of the events in the jungle during the early years, 1983 to 1993, from the first camp established in the Lacandon to the night of the uprising. The telling serves to build the myth of Zapatismo—but who has the ears to hear it? That is to say, while the Zapatista communiqués have been widely published in many languages, perhaps rivaling in our time the viral spread of older insurgent literature like The Communist Manifesto and The Declaration of the Rights of Man, and have been serialized in major Mexican periodicals, the numbers of actual readers, one can guess, is minimal. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the relatos of Old Antonio or of Don Durito serve to bring new sympathizers to the Zapatista cause, or to win them territory, either physical or psychological: by the time a reader has approached these stories, has taken the time to read and digest them, most likely she is already sympathetic to the cause. Still, the narrative itself has a certain intention and a certain promise. So how does the poetics of resistance, then, have its effect?

Aside from countless converging historical factors, what has drawn people in such numbers to a movement beginning in the most obscure corner of Mexico has been a web of stories and grand historical gestures: a ski-masked face and a rebel cry; a man on horseback, serenely smoking a pipe, with bullet belts marking a wide X across his chest; crowds of miniscule women in flower-embroidered dresses shoving and screaming at a ragged platoon of worried soldiers. Beginning in the mid-1990s, these images, seen worldwide, have evoked a global uprising against state and corporate capitalism, corrupt bureaucracy, and power wielded by the few against the interests of the many. Zapatismo, aside from creating a new kind of social movement that seeks to build local alternatives to power rather than to take the power of the state, has created an image and a mythic space that is unique among liberation movements, and that has allowed it to survive in the popular imagination, and therefore on the ground, for a decade and a half now.

By taking early and strategic advantage of the Internet and the news media, the Zapatistas have kept their story in the headlines, at least in their own country, and sometimes elsewhere. By using folktales, myths, jokes, and other ways of engaging an audience, they have filled what might be described as a psycho-emotional need for stories of resistance in the international left, and among those with a leftward tendency. By framing themselves as sympathetic characters—Subcomandante Marcos the charismatic and self-effacing wit, Comandanta Ramona the diminutive but persistent female presence who overcame illiteracy to speak before millions, and the rest of the Zapatistas, the unbending will of popular resistance—they have created a living history that wins them press, solidarity, and the attention of international human rights organizations, and that, generally, prevents the Mexican government from attacking them outright.

Dubious as it may at first appear, I’d suggest that the web of propaganda of which the communiqués are one piece—and perhaps the principal piece, the Rosetta Stone that allows us to decipher the meanings of the masks, the dolls, the encuentros, the public spectacles—goes beyond the means of literature, and certainly beyond the traditional limits of political pamphleteering, to function as branding.

To refer to the Zapatistas’ representation of a deeply marginalized multitude as branding might appear cynical or ill-considered, but it is fair to say that just as the Nike swoosh calls to mind not only athletic equipment but also athletics itself (and, for many, a supreme dog-eat-dog competitiveness, the fundamental ideology of predatory capitalism), and just as Starbucks represents not only gourmet coffee but yuppie comfort and conformity, the ski mask and other symbols of Zapatismo serve to deliver a dense package of information wrapped in a single visual icon—and to create name recognition for it. It is precisely this careful image management, along with a clear and consistent message, that prevented the Zapatistas from suffering the same fate as the multitudes slaughtered in neighboring Guatemala in the 1980s, and that has led them, instead, to inspire and represent global popular resistance.

As branding serves to expand the market of a product and broaden its market share by targeting a particular consumer profile, and as a national mythology serves to project qualities of authority, rightness and permanence—using such familiar advertising slogans as “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” “Como Mexico No Hay Dos,” “America the Beautiful,” “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave,” etcetera—the poetics of Zapatismo act as a portal to understanding the projected values, ideals, ideologies, and goals of the Zapatista movement.

Naomi Klein, in her era-defining opus No Logo, discusses the power of branded images, pointing out that “logos, by the force of ubiquity, have become the closest thing we have to an international language, recognized and understood in more places than English,” and describes them as a kind of magical shibboleth within “this global web of logos and products … couched in the euphoric marketing rhetoric of the global village, an incredible place where tribespeople in remotest rain forests tap away on laptop computers.”22

Indeed, just as Nike’s swoosh acts as a psychic trigger, urging the mind to recreate a set of relationships, feelings, urges, desires, there is a “magical” element to the way the ski-mask affects one’s perception of an indigenous woman, her face covered in order to be seen. The “magic” lies, in part, in what the mask implies through the Zapatistas’ manipulation of historical symbols, names, dates, and images. Just as “successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products,”23 successful movements must engage in name recognition, guerilla marketing, and product placement, constantly opening “fresh new spaces to disseminate the brand’s idea of itself.”24 This is the cynic’s view, indeed, but it is fair to say that, just as the folk art of José Guadalupe Posada (you know the images even if you don’t recognize the artist’s name) in some sense brands a Mexican popular mythology at the turn of the last century—insurgent, satirical, redolent of class antagonism and the reclamation of native cultural symbols—the ski-masked face and the comical image of Don Durito de la Lacandona have branded Mexico’s grassroots rebellion at the vertiginous turn of our own century.

In the world of business, the objective of branding is, of course, to increase sales, or, put another way, to draw increased capital exchange. Since the Zapatistas are not a profit-seeking venture, the objective of their brand is not to increase revenue, but rather to encourage other forms of exchange: solidarity, reciprocity, material aid, human rights accompaniment, and so on. That is to say, the Zapatista brand attracts social and political capital. How else is it possible to explain that while impoverished people, rebel people, people demanding a voice exist everywhere, Zapatista rebel territory has attracted aid and accompaniment from so many since 1994? Human Rights Watch and the Red Cross, congressional delegations, cultural celebrities from Danielle Mitterrand and Oliver Stone to Rage Against the Machine, Manu Chao and the Indigo Girls, celebrated intellectuals, documentary film makers, boatloads of journalists and social scientists, educators, health workers, medical professionals, agronomists, organic farmers, collectivists, fair trade entrepreneurs, poets, community organizers, religious delegations, video artists, and scores of so-called “revolutionary tourists,” not to mention the steady stream of political visionaries, anarchists, and seekers and adventurers of all description. Where else on the planet do the likes of John Berger, Jose Saramago, and Susan Sontag chat with Catalan solidarity activists and peasant farmers in thatch-roofed huts?

Such is the power of branding. “We are branded, we cannot die.” Swoosh!

But, aside from its superficial goal of attracting capital, whether in the form of shekels or of solidarity, there is a key difference between corporate branding and the sort engaged in by the Zapatistas. In his subversive classic, The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord examines the role of the mass-mediated spectacle in the reproduction of capitalist ideology, arguing that social life has become mediated by images; beyond mediated, he argues, social life has lost any quality of unmediated experience—it is reduced, in late capitalism, to the endless reproduction of images. The function of the spectacle, in Debord’s thought, is to alienate each from each, to shape reality—social space, interpersonal relations, the subjective realms of desire, need, and community—according to the images provided by the machinery of capitalist production: “The spectacle within society corresponds to a concrete manufacture of alienation.”25 The opening section of the book, “Separation Perfected,” begins with the proclamation, “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”26

In a certain sense, the Zapatistas are masters at creating spectacle. Yet, where Debord sees in spectacle the function of separation, or alienation, the Zapatista web of propaganda creates and manipulates spectacle to re-establish connection—to reject the alienation of individuals from both history and society, and to reunite each to each and all to all. To further mine Debord’s lexicon, the Zapatista brand and the spectacle it projects function as détournement, gathering the symbols and sense of capital, and turning them about to both empty them of their force, and create a liberatory space to be filled by collective acts of insurgent imagination.

It might be noted that in much of Mexico, deep Mexico, on the eve of the North American Free Trade Agreement’s implementation in 1994, “modern conditions of production” did not and still do not, to a large extent, prevail. The figures are widely available: Chiapas supplies 20 percent of Mexico’s oil and 40 percent of its natural gas, yet 60 percent of the population cooks with firewood; roughly the same percentage lacks clean drinking water, and the same percentage again is chronically malnourished.27 A particularly telling figure, illustrative of the economic means of most Chiapanecos, is that, of the 118 municipalities in the state of Chiapas, only 25 percent have banks. In the municipality of Ocosingo, with an area of 10,000 square kilometers, there were, at the time of the uprising, two banks.28

However, to say that modern conditions of production are absent from Chiapas is a vast oversimplification; in fact, modern production exists, but, as throughout the global south, the wealth produced is shipped inexorably northward. While Mexico’s oil, gas, beef, coffee, timber and other products leave the state, Chiapas suffers the lowest literacy rate in Mexico (30 percent statewide and almost 50 percent in the zone of conflict); in eastern Chiapas, over 80 percent of homes have mud floors.29

Perhaps this odd but oddly prevalent condition—the coexistence of the digging stick and the laptop, the presence of the campesino in huaraches and his burro on the interstate toll road—is what has allowed the unique spectacle of Zapatismo to bloom. The collision of modernity with peasant culture, perhaps, presents conditions where the commodified and commodifying spectacle of Debord lives alongside the “directly lived” experience of land-based peoples engaged in age-old seasonal rhythms of production. Perhaps it is this “leak” in the spectacle—a still uncommodified and unalienated corner of the world, off in the periphery of Southeast Mexico—that gives the Zapatista spectacle both its allure and its power of détournement.

20 Naomi Klein, No Logo (New York: Picador, 2000), 73.
21 Gloria Muñoz Ramirez, The Fire and The Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement. (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2008), 20.
22 Klein, No Logo, 2000, xix–xxii.
23 Ibid., 3.
24 Ibid., 5.
25 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Detroit: Black and Red, 1983), 32.
26 Ibid., 1.
27 Figures from Para Entender Chiapas, (San Cristobal de las Casas: La Coordinacion de Organismos No Gobernementales por la Paz de Chiapas, 1997), 31.
28 From the magazine El Cuarto Poder, Comision Nacional para la Proteccion y Defensa de los Usuarios de los Sistemas Financieros (CONDUSEF).
29 Figures from Ana Carrigan, “Chiapas, The First Postmodern Revolution,” in Juana Ponce de Leon, ed., Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001).